As an Englishman, I was brought up to believe in good, solid, English institutions: the monarchy, the BBC, self deception. There is nothing quite so lovely as a good cup of traditional English self deception, brewed slowly over a dozen wars which we single handedly won with nothing but our bare hands and a fighting bulldog spirit. It is like drinking the tears of Churchill himself. Except Churchill never cried. He was, famously, an automaton.
I digress. My favourite English institution was always Match of the Day: the BBC’s delightful football highlights show. It is a fine example of Englishness and a novel approach to football coverage. Instead of sporting analysis, it offers warm familiarity. There is Gary Lineker’s eerily orange face; here is a video montage of Sam Allardyce angrily chewing gum. And of course, here is a daft little glowing circle around the central defender which illustrates absolutely nothing at all.
Next to Lineker is Alan Hansen. The Scot is an observant pundit, who once told Alex Ferguson that “you win nothing with kids”, and a cliché machine. So long has he sat on the MOTD sofa that he has forgotten how to analyse at all. Instead, he gaily barks nonsensical buzzwords into the microphone. “Pace!” he cries, “determination!” he yelps, “physciality!” he muses. In short, Hansen puts the ish in British.
Imagine my surprise, then, when last Saturday evening, Hansen and his co-pundit Robbie Savage actually managed to spark a real debate. Hansen was adamant that United’s Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney were the two best strikers in the Premier League, while Savage rather reasonably pointed out that over at Liverpool, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez were in much better form.
There followed a peculiar tiff in which Hansen first ridiculed Savage, before later firmly asserting himself that Suarez was the best striker in England. With that, I realised that Match of the Day was as banal and unenlightening as ever, and happily went back to feeding my Bulldog, Winston.
Savage, of course, was right. Sturridge and Suarez are after nine games a far more dangerous partnership than van Persie and Rooney have been in the same time frame. It doesn’t take a genius to work that out, (take Savage himself, for example). Liverpool are third, and Manchester United are eighth. Sturridge and Suarez have 14 Premier League goals between them, Rooney and van Persie only 9. On form alone, the Liverpool duo is far ahead.
Form, though, does not last forever, and if the thundering inevitability of the Premier League is anything to go by, Liverpool will valiantly lose their heads and United will overtake them once more. Balance will be restored, Vader will be redeemed, etc etc.
Except that this season it does not seem so clear cut. Since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, change is in the air all over the Premier League. Arsenal have a world class player, United have no winning mentality and Liverpool have two very good strikers. The last time the planets aligned in such a way, Alan Hansen could still string together an interesting sentence.
For in this century at least, Liverpool do not do strike partnerships. All their great goalscorers of the last decade or so – Owen, Torres, Suarez himself up until now – have acted alone: a lone world class player in a soup of mediocrity.
Now though, Sturridge has come of age and is working with Suarez like they have known each other all their lives. They are like salt and pepper, fish and chips, me and Winston. Suarez does the scrapping, the biting and the occasional moments of sheer genius – Sturridge gracefully finds the space and puts the ball in the back of the net.
Much of this can be put down to the wisdom of Brendan Rodgers. Unlike his recent predecessors, the Liverpool manager is a man with a system, a penchant for attacking football and a knowledge of how to make unremarkable teams pass the ball.
If the current trend continues – and that is by no means certain – then yet another great English institution may fall. For two decades, United have triumphed over Liverpool and just about everyone else. For two decades, Liverpool have epitomised English self deception, hopelessly believing in their own legends. If they continue to beat United, England will be plunged into uncertainty. The old familiarities of the Premier League era will crumble, and Hansen will surely follow. You will find him in a bus shelter, shouting "great determination!" at innocent pensioners as they struggle with their shopping, and ruing the day his beloved Liverpool ever escaped mediocrity.